New Year's music is far better than Christmas music

Happy New Year from First Aid Kit!
Happy New Year from First Aid Kit!

Back in 1788, poet Robert Burns wrote an anthem that's still more ubiquitous than Montell Jordan's "This is How We Do It" at New Year's. The lines to the kazoo-friendly "Auld Lang Syne" have summed up the "drinking to forget" philosophy ever since.

What came in ensuing years is more complex. Now, we not only have to forget the shitty year that we just experienced, but also an even shittier collection of wall-to-wall saccharine Christmas music. So, the end of one year and the beginning of another has its perks. It's a brief window of time when countless serious songwriters put down their sidecars, nog, and newborn babies, and pick up a pen.

New Year's is loaded with the stuff songwriters ache for -- reflection, redemption, introspection, apologies, resolutions, and, naturally, mournful chord progressions. Sapped of the wild commercial potential of a season just finished, these are songs mostly tucked into albums released throughout the year that are about things bigger than just a gift-giving season. (Although Prince and U2 turned these sentiments into massive hits.) They hint at the concentrated power of a 48-hour period -- concentrated even further into a couple of minutes.

Oh, but there are exceptions. Frank Loesser's 1947 song "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" has come the closest to being grandfathered into the Christmas music canon. It's an innocuous melody with words that can either take on an offhand quality or a massively insecure one -- depending on how badly we believe the singer needs a date. Very firmly in the latter category there is Sonny Til and the Orioles, who first popularized the tune.

And then versions by Nancy Wilson, Johnny Mathis, Donny Osmond, and umpteen others gurgle this thing out predictably. Because of the overly time-specific subject matter, the playability of this song is limited. After Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- a couple people who are ensured to be surrounded by mirth and tinsel and argyle sweater vests tonight -- it's time to scream out "Give me fucking mid-July already!"

So, after a song that does absolutely nothing to encapsulate what's good (or horrible) about exiting 2012 and entering 2013, let's quickly away to the myriad more artful approaches.

New Year's is about turning over a new leaf in love

Apologies flow faster than champagne on New Year's. "How can our love go wrong if we start the new year right?" Frank Sinatra asks. And certainly if there's a time for admitting one's misdeeds and plans for a year with no personal dalliances, it's when everyone's already swaying and misty-eyed. If we can avoid the worst day to break up for good, as detailed succintly in the Walkmen's "New Year's Eve," things could be fruitful for the coming year -- or at least the next four hours.

Otis Redding and Carla Thomas come together on "New Year's Resolution," and don't have time for your cynicism. They're going to try it again and see how happy they can be. Period.

Otis Redding & Carla Thomas - New Year's Resolution from Dave Borucki on Vimeo.

Pushing further into the realm of relationship optimism is the Zombies' "This Will Be Our Year." Still, it's only a 12-month guarantee of happiness -- fraught, might we add, with constant reassurance. Take that as you will.

New Year's is undeniably emo

Warning: You'll either feel great about yourself or bad about songwriters in this section. Diary-prone emo-leaning musicians are glued to New Year's Eve thought-probing. Now, before any nattering breaks out, know that we acknowledge that using the word "emo" is dated, reductive and a borderline slur to music that is anything but bad (well, some of it). But, when you look at the lyrical content of these songs, there's a unifying level of existential dread that comes along. Plus, this stuff is great for movie soundtracks.

Cursive's Tim Kasher is the angry guy at the punch bowl who still remembers how things still sucked 12 months ago when everyone was doing this last. "So break in the new year with a vintage wine / Here's to aging, when some things just get bitter with age," he sings in "Break in the New Year."

Twin Cities product Motion City Soundtrack have multiple songs on their 2006 album Commit This to Memory referencing the turning of the year, including "Together We'll Ring in the New Year." Justin Pierre wails, "These humans all suck/ I'd rather be home feeling violent and lonely." But that's nothing compared to Thursday's "Jet Black New Year" in which Geoff Rickly proclaims "the air is cut with cyanide." Sigh, what's in the medicine cabinet?

Zooey's ex Ben Gibbard actually got this one right on Death Cab for Cutie's "The New Year," from arguably their final great album, Transatlanticism. While there's a fair amount of defeatism laced within its first half, the song ultimately rumbles through with a coda of positivity -- even if it's just a fantasy.

What better time for obfuscation about disposable art than the dawn of the New Year?

After a string of literal pittances, leave it to Leonard Cohen to completely fog up the window of what a fresh 365 can be about on one of his Songs of Love and Hate to "Last Year's Man." A poem that could be unpacked in paragraphs aplenty, here we'll resign to say that amidst the religious imagery and vivid description, Cohen makes a chilling observation about the longevity of any of our creative pursuits. "All the rain falls down, amen, on the work of last year's man," can either be read as a chance to have a literal clean slate of creative projects after an unproductive year -- or the damning reality that no one's going to remember the successes of a past season.

Speaking of, "You say the whole point of everything's the moving on/ And I can't help but feel somewhat opposed to this/ My shit has been torched by fascists, or in some small way, we're all traitors to our own kind." That's Destroyer's Dan Bejar amidst a bank of guitar riffage and warm ambiance of "My Favorite Year," bidding farewell to an artistic high that is often lost before a project's even complete.

The future is (possibly) bright, so let's write a song about it

Easily the most fulfilling batch among the New Year's creations are these. The Breeders welcome in "New Year" in one of the simplest of fashions -- an accelerating riff and a reference to what this thing might be all about at its root. "We have come for light," Ms. Deal sings. The days are starting to get brighter in a literal sense because they're getting longer.

Our local addition to this category is Semisonic's "This Will Be My Year," which preaches a certain level of self-deception for upward climb in the coming year. ABBA's "Happy New Year" argues that if we can't at least try to be hopeful, "we might as well lay down and die." The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle is angstier in his "This Year" assertion that "I am going to make it through this year if it kills me." And First Aid Kit's "New Year's Eve" offers "And I know I am naive, but if anything/ That's what's going to save me." We get it.

Arguably one of the best of this ilk is the Walkmen's "In the New Year." Ever in short story mode, singer Hamilton Leithauser's character admits that his heart's in the strangest place amid a tale of renewal after a time of darkness. Colored by cups of good cheer, the proclamations get grander as the song goes along and the audience surrounding the protagonist waits patiently. They even ask "How long will you ramble?" at one point. If this hasn't happened in some form to you at least once, maybe this will be your year.

Finally, Akron/Family strips away all of the extra trimmings of the season. The fire is dwindling, empty bottles linger on the table, the air is smoky and clear at the same time, and anyone who isn't out necking on the balcony or already in a taxi is harmonizing around the piano.

"Last year was a hard year for such a long time/ This year's gonna be ours." With these carefully chosen words, nearly any scenario can fit within -- except at that exact stroke of Midnight whe it is neither 2012 or 2013. The challenges of a previous year are the fuel for growth, even if the exact same reflections will likely come to pass in another year's time. Perhaps that means that everything accomplished was done just a little bit better. You can keep your reindeer.

Our resolution was to make a list of songs. What's yours?

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